When it comes to women’s empowerment, there is precious little the Right to Information Act (RTI) seems to have contributed to, thanks to a dismal 9% women using it as against 91% men. And the strength of women information commissioners across the country stands at an even worse, at 4.5%.
The first of these dismal facts comes from research undertaken jointly by Satark Nagarik Sanghatan and the Centre for Equity Studies, while the second one constitutes research findings of Transparency International.
RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj, who spoke at a Moneylife Foundation’s event early this week, stated that Act is more directly relevant and vital to women at large –because if they do not get their ration cards, their children will go hungry, if there is some mismanagement in schools, their children will not get educated, or else, they would suffer from lack of sanitation if they do not get their rightful public toilets. Yet, women score very low in the use of RTI.
Ms Bharadwaj analyses that this is due to the patriarchal system wherein women traditionally play second fiddle. Even if she wants to raise an issue under RTI, the male member of the family applies, she observes.
She says the other reason is the intimidation by the public information officers (PIOs) and appellate authorities (AAs) who treat women RTI applicants rudely. This has led to the inhibition to use this powerful tool of citizen empowerment.
However, thanks to several non-government organisations (NGOs) across the country, working in transparency and government accountability, who are hand-holding women to use RTI, there is a glimmer of hope.
Two instances come to my mind as to how women have effectively and courageously used the RTI Act. Kamla Moirangthiem from a village in Manipur ensured proper implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The other Asha Namdeo Sable, whose husband died as an undertrial in the Beed prison, received compensation as she proved through RTI documents that he died of injuries.
Here are their stories:
Kamla Moirangthiem is a resident of Uchekontakhok village of Manipur. Her village pradhan had taken her details for the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY). But only three applications were passed and she did not get any response. Finally, when her friend filed an RTI application asking for the list of beneficiaries under the IAY scheme, she realised that she was one of them.
When she approached the pradhan of her gram sabha with her request for a home, he coolly asked her to submit two photographs along with her signature on a blank sheet. “I asked him what he was planning to write in the paper but there was no answer. Then I asked him how much money he will give me. He thought for a moment and then told me that after deducting a percentage for the underground groups, I would get Rs18,000 to build a house. I knew that I was entitled to Rs35,000. So I refused to sign the paper.”
She then filed a complaint with the district collectorate about this issue. “There was no action taken upon my complaint at all.”
She then filed a writ petition with the Gauhati High Court Imphal bench. The High Court subsequently directed the administration to take appropriate action on her complaint.
Finally, the district collector responded and directed the block development officer (BDO) to release the payment. Her retaliation, however, infuriated the pradhan.
She says, “I started getting threats from the underground organisations. But all my friends supported me. Every night they would all gather at my house to protect me.”
However, after the death threats, she directly went to the pradhan and confronted him openly. “I have no enemy in this community except for you. If anything happens to me, it will be your responsibility.”
The presence of non-state actors complicates the picture in Manipur.
Kamla received a phone call from an underworld organisation. “They told me that I should give them 4% of the money I received. My friends spoke to them. We asked them to come and check my place to see if I can pay up the 4% they are asking for.”
Fortunately, the underworld organisations did not pressurise much. She finally got her money in instalments of Rs27,000 and Rs7,000. Her four-year-old struggle ensured that she was the first person to get the entire amount in her village and in nearby areas.
“People look up to me. They tell me that they also will not accept less money for building a house under Indira Awas Yojana,” says Kamla beaming with pride.
Kamla and her friends are a part of a group who have been trained in the use of the RTI Act by Macha Leima, a women’s organisation. Macha Leima is one of the oldest women’s organisations in Manipur. After the implementation of RTI Act, Macha Leima formed groups in villages of Manipur and trained them to use the RTI Act.
YASHADA published Kamla’s story in a book dedicated to common citizens across the country, using RTI for their personal issues, reflecting the more significant social malaise.
In the other instance, in a rare example of the effective use of RTI, Asha, the wife of an undertrial who had died in the Beed Central Jail under suspicious circumstances, sought legal intervention based on the documents procured through RTI, and then forced the Maharashtra government to cough up the compensation of Rs5 lakh with 9% interest through the High Court. She did receive the compensation from the state government!
The Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court ordered, “Information was collected under the RTI Act and death due to head injury was confirmed.’’
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, and also convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)